Monsters & Madness

Secret Lives in Victorian Literature

Defining Insanity via Beast

Defining Insanity

Bram Stoker’s Dracula presents a cunning relationship between man and beast. The novel seems to be about the supernatural, but is also about the monster inside of humans. The novel contains multiple instances of humans demonstrating animalistic actions and having animalistic qualities. While looking at the relationship of man and beast through a lens of insanity, Dracula poses a question on the Victorian notion that one can identify insanity in a human based off physical features such as one’s face and body. When a human displays physical and psychological animalistic qualities, the character is immediately assumed to be insane opposed to a belief that the supposed lunatic is simply demonstrating primal animalistic tendencies.
Jonathan Harker describes Count Dracula using animalistic language to describe his appearance, clothing, and movement. For example, when Harker witnesses the Count climbing down the castle’s wall, he describes Dracula as a “lizard” as well as some creature “with great wings,” like a bat or a bird (Stoker 41). Harker observes the animal-like features then questions “what manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man?” (Stoker 41). Harker questions whether Dracula is a monstrous beast that looks like a man or if he is simply insane. In response to Dracula’s bizarre actions, Harker believes that Dracula is either crazy or an animal. In either instance, Harker uses non-human characteristic to describe Dracula in an attempt to dehumanize and disassociate Dracula with conventions accepted in daily society.
Additionally, Dr. Seward’s patient Renfield presents an interesting counterargument to Dracula’s monstrous appearance and actions. The notion that Seward looks at Renfield’s face and “see(s) a warning of danger” of a “sidelong look which meant killing” demonstrates Seward’s belief in physiognomy, the ability to assess character or personality from a person’s outer appearance. According to Seward’s notes, Renfield is a “zoophagous [life-eating] maniac” (Stoker 79). Similar to Dracula consuming human blood, Renfield consumes live organisms. Humans are mammals. Carnivorous mammals instinctively kill and eat animals lower on the food chain. Renfield, a mammal, feeds animals to a predator higher on the food chain and eats the highest predator. Here lies an example of how animalistic actions in humans render insanity in Dracula even though humans are technically animals.
If animalistic nature innately lies inside humans and demonstrating animalistic nature means a person is insane, then Seward’s claim that “all men are mad” is true (Stoker 129). Human beings can look normal but actually be a monster or insane. If a monster can have humanistic qualities to make everyone think he is human then inversely, a human can have monstrous qualities to make everyone think he is a monster.

1 Comment

  1. This is a really interesting idea, that every time a character is displayed as animalistic, they are perceived as insane. I had not thought about that before. However, I think it is a stretch to assume we as a society would not also think someone insane if they ate spiders and flies etc. I think Stoker draws upon the animal side to exemplify how insane characters are, because people are usually supposed to keep their animal instincts inside.

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